Israeli and Lebanese officials hold first border negotiations in 30 years

A convoy of the Lebanese delegation arrives to the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. Lebanon and Israel are to begin indirect talks Wednesday over their disputed maritime border, with American officials mediating the talks that both sides insist are purely technical and not a sign of any normalization of ties. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Israeli and Lebanese officials on Wednesday morning sat down in the same room — or tent, to be exact — for indirect maritime border negotiations in what has been called a “historic” achievement with the potential to bring more stability and prosperity to the region.

However, both countries have stressed that the talks, which lasted for about two hours, are merely aimed at resolving a decade-old dispute on the exact delineation of each other’s territorial waters in an area that may contain undersea natural gas reserves, and do not presage peace negotiations or a normalization process.

The next round of talks is scheduled for October 28, officials said.

The meeting — a rare official interaction between Lebanon and Israel, which have no diplomatic relations — were hosted by the United Nations and mediated by the United States. The session was held in a large open tent at the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force in Naqoura, about 200 meters north of the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Expectations regarding the negotiations “need to be realistic,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Monday. “We’re not talking about peace talks or negotiations over normalization, but rather about the attempt to solve a technical-economic problem that for a decade has been preventing us from developing natural resources in the sea for the benefit of the people of the region.”

The talks aim to solve “a well-defined and limited problem regarding those territorial waters,” Steinitz added.

The talks will see the Lebanese delegation speaking through UN and US officials to the Israelis, sources said ahead of the session. Lebanese negotiators do not intend to speak directly with their Israeli counterparts even though the sides will sit in the same room, according to a report last week.